Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Opposition to city trash-to-energy plant grows

Frank Jackson calls it part of his sustainability efforts. Opponents call it a polluter. They'll have it out over the new few months.

Cleveland's plan to build a waste-to-energy facility on the West Side looks like it'll lead to a serious battle, with both sides claiming they're defending the environment.

Protesters hit City Hall last night, trying to stop the plant. (See NewsChannel 5's coverage here.) Councilman Brian Cummins predicted it'll never be built.

The Jackson Administration wants to heat trash and turn it into energy using a technology popular in Japan called gasification. The mayor traveled to Japan last year to look into it. He touts it as part of the city's plan to reach a goal of "zero waste" by 2019. He argues it'd be better for the environment and the city's budget than the current practice of dumping trash in a landfill near Canton.

"If I don’t have to pay a $7 million dumping fee and all the fuel it costs to get a garbage truck to the dump and back, not only have I dealt with being environmentally friendly, because I’m not putting something in the environment, then I’m also saving millions of dollars," he told me last month.

Opponents refer to the plant as an incinerator. They think the new technology will pollute the air as conventional trash-burning incinerators do.

Dennis Kucinich came out against the plant this month (and three days later, claimed he was leading the opposition to it). Jonathon Sawyer of Greenhouse Tavern, touting his sustainable-restaurant credentials, just wrote a letter to Jackson opposing the plant. It's an interesting moment -- a Cleveland chef trying to leverage his growing celebrity into influence.

"The process will greatly increase the amount of soot, carbon monoxide, and mercury that our community ingests daily," Sawyer argues.

Jackson still has to convince a skeptical city council. I wouldn't be surprised if opposition lines up much as it did against Jackson's failed LED lighting plan.

Both ideas were originally promoted by businessman Peter Tien. Scene ran a good story last month that poked holes in Tien's plans and credentials. Now, after giving him a $1.5 million contract to design a gasification plant, the city is seeking informational bids from other plant designers instead.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Dimora trial a nationwide hit, thanks to CNN and Ch. 19's Puppet's Court

At first, the Jimmy Dimora trial was our tawdry local affair. The opening day got a quick mention on NPR, and that's about it for national coverage. Chicago and Detroit scandals become nationwide stories, but Cleveland's not a big city anymore, so news directors on the coasts think our scandals are strictly small-town.

Well, that's sure changed. Thank 19 Action News and its puppets.

Yes, in a mere week and a half, Channel 19 has taken Dimora's Vegas romp and sexual appetite nationwide.

Last Tuesday, it debuted "The Puppet's Court," a daily reenactment of the trial's most salacious testimony and wiretaps. The Associated Press put out a story, and pretty much everyone with a web site has joined in on the fun. Eight days later, a Google search of "Dimora" and "puppets" generates 174,000 hits.

Monday night, Dimora and his cronies really broke out. Anderson Cooper featured 19's puppets on his "Ridiculist" segment, feigning shock that a TV news station would resort to felt to get around a courthouse camera ban.

19's stunt is borrowed -- MSNBC's Keith Olbermann was doing courthouse puppets nine years ago. But within the genre, the folks at 19 are innovating.

Their puppets, provided by Natural Bridges Puppets of Parma Heights, improve on Olbermann's pix on a stick. They talk, shake, sleep. They're more muppety. The dunt-dunt-dunt theme song, borrowed from the '80s courtroom show The People's Court, amps up the kitschy drama. The backdrop of an actual photo of Delmonico's Steak House behind the J. Kevin Kelley puppet in the Day 4 video adds some nice local atmosphere.

In the end, Cooper, like most of us, got lured in by the hooker hook. How could he not? "Is there room for a lady of the evening in the court of puppet opinion?" he asked. His answer: A resounding yes.

Every other media outlet in Cleveland is shaking their heads, saying they'd never resort to such shenanigans. But when the daily paper's front-page story reads like this, and a web site called clevelandescortsnews.com is tenaciously aggregating the daily's coverage -- well, as Hunter S. Thompson once said, "When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro." I say, let Action News be Action News!

Update, 1/26: From the Plain Dealer this morning: "Judge Sara Lioi individually questioned six jurors about whether they had heard media reports about the trial. Despite the judge speaking in a low voice to the jurors, she could be heard mentioning the word 'puppet.' "

Friday, January 20, 2012

Take the Dimora scandal tour with me & Ch. 3

Scandal tourism used to be an overlooked niche in Cleveland's visitor economy, but not anymore.

Not after Channel 3 reporter Amanda Barren interviewed me about the hot spots featured in the "Map of the Fallen Stars," my guide to the Jimmy Dimora trial and the Cuyahoga County corruption scandal.

Check out the video from yesterday's morning show. Then read the "Map of the Fallen Stars" in the January issue of Cleveland Magazine, or online here, for my advice on how you can live it up like Dimora and Frank Russo on your next extravagant, yet discreet, staycation.

Also, follow the link to Channel 3's page about my appearance and let me know if you see what I see: an ad for the Mirage in Las Vegas. ("Stay 2 nights and receive a $65 dining credit!") I guess AdChoices has been following the Dimora trial too.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

No more mirrors: My profile of Nailah Byrd, Cuyahoga County's new inspector general

Down at the Dimora trial in Akron, it's Day 3 of Cleveland's tawdry, FBI-filmed reality show, "Jimmy and Frank Do the Mirage."

But up in Cleveland, things have changed.

Frank Russo's giant wall-length mirror is gone from his old office. So are Russo's black lacquer credenza and leather couches and chairs. And in Russo's old office sits Nailah Byrd, Cuyahoga County's first inspector general, whose job is to bring sunlight and transparency to the government.

Byrd is the taxpayer’s watchdog at the county building, the enforcer of a new ethics ordinance and an independent investigator of alleged wrongdoing in the government. She's one of Cleveland Magazine's 30 Most Interesting People for 2012. And if you think she looks familiar -- yes, she's the daughter of former Cleveland schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett.

“When I first started, you hear the whispering as you walk down the hallway,” she told me. “Is she the inspector general? What is she going to do? Why is she here?”

You can read my profile of Byrd here and in the January issue of Cleveland Magazine.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Dimora defense: ‘It was his job’

Jimmy Dimora’s attorney Andrea Whitaker previewed an aggressive defense in her opening statement at trial today.

The defense strategy: Admit that Dimora took gifts from friends. Deny that he ever took cash. Admit that Dimora did favors for people as county commissioner. Deny that he ever did anything official in exchange for anything.

“Jimmy did help these people,” Whitaker said. “That was his job.”

The line became a refrain in Whitaker’s punchy, hour-long statement. “It was his job to let people know about the county red tape and procedures, the things they needed to do,” she said. “It was a perfectly legitimate part of commissioner Dimora’s job, the job of everyone in the county, to respond to these requests.” He helped friends, Whitaker claimed, according to the “same criteria” he applied to everyone else.

Much of Whitaker’s argument echoed the defense Dimora articulated himself in 2008 and 2009: He awarded contracts to the low bidder, based on advice from staff. People asked him for help all the time. He reported all the gifts and meals his friends bought him on his state ethics reports.

Whitaker disputed the prosecution’s depiction of the case as a secret world. Dimora’s friendships were out in the open, she said.

“The government has confused friendship with corruption,” she argued. “The government has confused Jimmy Dimora with Frank Russo.”

Whitaker said the defense is going to call several county employees as witnesses, to testify that several of the contracts, loan extensions, and so forth in the indictment were awarded legitimately, following proper rules. She insisted that businessman Steve Pumper’s assertion that he bribed Dimora with $30,000 is a lie.

“The evidence will show you Jimmy Dimora never received cash from anyone,” she said.

Whitaker signaled that the defense will attack the bribery charges by questioning whether Dimora received gifts in return for anything, and whether some of the “official acts” he’s alleged to have undertaken for the gifts were really official parts of his job.

This could be the core of the case. Earlier, prosecutor Antoinette Bacon asserted that an official act included not just votes, but scheduling or attending meetings, asking other public officials for help, and other informal nudges and recommendations. Whitaker objected, and Judge Sara Lioi reminded the jury that she, not Bacon, will tell them what the law is.

Starting with the less dramatic charges, Whitaker went through the stories Bacon had told about Dimora and the alleged conspirators and argued that several of the things of value Dimora received were gestures of friendship. With the Beanie Wells jersey, for instance, she argued that William Neiheiser paid for it because he and Dimora had been drinking at a Cornerstone for Hope charity auction, and Neiheiser felt bad that he’d egged Dimora on to bid $3,600 he couldn’t afford.

Other times, Whitaker argued that Dimora had used his influence legitimately. She said Dimora had recommended friend Gina Coppers for a job at the Bedford Municipal Court, not in exchange for her having sex with him, but because she had worked for him as senior citizens department director when he was mayor of Bedford Heights.

When taped phone calls are played in the trial, Whitaker asked the jury, “Listen for examples of Jimmy Dimora depriving the citizens of Cuyahoga County of his honest services in exchange for things of value. Listen to them over and over.” They won’t hear any examples, she said.

“Jimmy Dimora is not guilty of being a corrupt politician,” Whitaker concluded.

(Note to concerned readers: Don’t worry, I’m not violating the judge’s ban on blogging in the courthouse. I’m writing from a coffeehouse a block away.)

No smoking gun as Dimora trial opens

“This trial will take you into a world [filled] with bribery, with fraud, with conspiracy, with obstruction,” said prosecutor Antoinette Bacon, kicking off her opening statement today in the Jimmy Dimora bribery trial.

Across the room, the former Cuyahoga County commissioner turned his head to listen. His cheeks were shorn, his familiar beard gone, leaving his face looking pointy, stern, downcast.

Bacon argued that Dimora and ex-auditor Frank Russo took cash, sold jobs, tried to fix court cases, and came up with “short cuts to give some an unfair advantage over others.” Bribes, she said, helped make Dimora’s back yard “a private luxury retreat.”

“Dimora and Russo realized that some people were willing to buy [their] power,” Bacon argued. “Sometimes, Dimora and Russo were willing to sell.”

Bacon’s opener, in federal court in Akron, included no smoking gun, no single incident in which Dimora was caught explicitly making a gifts-for-favors deal. (Underwhelmingly, she promised the jurors they’d hear phone calls in which Dimora “says something like, ‘If he gets the work, he’ll buy dinner.’”)

Instead, the prosecution is planning a long march through a complex story, overwhelming in its detail. Bacon alleged a conspiracy involving 18 people, and displayed photos of them, one by one, arranged in a pyramid with Dimora and Russo at the top. It took her an hour and 40 minutes to get through it all.

The most vivid story Bacon told, of course, was set in Las Vegas. Her PowerPoint flashed color photos of Dimora’s entourage frolicking in a private cabana at Bare, the Mirage Casino’s exclusive pool. A grainy surveillance photo showed Dimora at the Prime Steakhouse; the $2,200 dinner check was reproduced next to it.

Bacon told jurors they will see video of businessman Ferris Kleem giving casino chips to Dimora. She played a phone recording of Dimora thanking Kleem for sending the “chatty” masseuse (an alleged prostitute, named Suzanne) to his hotel room. In another call, at the trip’s end, Dimora thanks Kleem for his “generosity.” During the trip, Bacon said, Dimora was calling Cleveland, inquiring about Kleem’s bid for a $38 million contract at the juvenile justice center. (Kleem didn’t get the contract.)

Over and over, Bacon yoked Dimora to Russo, his corrupt former friend now facing 21 years in prison. She said they had “an unspoken and unwritten sort of set of rules, almost a conspiracy handbook.” Rule #1, she argued: Only deal with people you trust. #2: Sometimes use an intermediary, a bag man. Dimora’s co-defendant, Michael Gabor, played both roles in several schemes, she charged. #3: Cover your tracks.

That’s what she said Dimora and Co. did after word of the FBI probe leaked in May 2008. She showed jurors checks that Dimora’s wife wrote to contractors who worked on the Dimora home the same day agents confronted businessman Steve Pumper. The prosecutor described Dimora, Russo, and Gabor meeting for breakfast to hear the news or react to it, and Dimora, county employee J. Kevin Kelley, and union leader Robert Rybak meeting in a post office parking lot at night to talk about how they’d react if the FBI swooped in.

Bacon’s statement included two more new revelations. One is that Dimora got a U.S. senator to write a letter to the U.S. Embassy in Romania about a visa application. The applicant’s friend, John Valentin, allegedly did work on Dimora’s house to reward Dimora. The senator, who was on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, wrote the letter in 2007. That means it's probably George Voinovich. He was on the foreign relations committee; Sherrod Brown wasn't.

-Adrian Maldonado, who was the county’s head of procurement and diversity in early 2008, is becoming an important figure in the trial. Maldonado had a lot of say in the more minute aspects of evaluating contract bids, since he ruled on whether bidders’ subcontractors were qualified for the job. In one phone call Bacon played, Pumper, who was trying to get work for his company Green-Source, says, “Adrian tells me right now it’s purely political. If you can convince Jimmy to hold off [on rebidding a job], he’ll do it.”

(Maldonado spoke to me for my 2009 profile of Dimora, “Life of the Party.” “If Jimmy Dimora is invested in an issue, he wants to know all the details,” he told me. “Did we do everything we needed to do? Does the aggrieved party have another shot at something else? The second bidder, is he clean?” Dimora or his aides might ask if a contract can be rebid, he said, or they might ask what the law says about the bidding process. “He never said to me, ‘Adrian, your job is on the line,’ ” Maldonado says. “He never asked me to do anything I might be ashamed of.”)

Jurors also got to see a lot of pictures of Dimora’s back yard patio, decked out with gleaming silver appliances and new wood furnishings with granite countertops. They got a long look at a photo of Dimora’s Beanie Wells jersey.

Bacon described the trial to come as a “journey” through a “dark world,” and promised to introduce the jurors to “travel guides” who’ll walk them through it, including Frank Russo.

(Note to concerned readers: Don’t worry, I’m not violating the judge’s ban on blogging in the courthouse. I’m writing from a coffeehouse a block away.)

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Mayor Jackson: 'I must be a new person, they tell me'

Frank Jackson has heard the talk that he's finally gone from caretaker mayor to visionary mayor. It bugs him.

“I’m no different today than I was then,” Jackson says. “It’s just that people see me different, because they’re looking at these things, and they say, ‘Oh, the mayor has come up with ideas!’ ”

He’s talking about his plans to develop the waterfront and close Public Square to traffic, creating a single park. They capped a good 2011 for Jackson, when a lot of people around town thought he stepped up more as a leader.

That helped make Jackson #4 on this year's Power 100 list, published by Cleveland Magazine's sister publication, Inside Business. That's up from #7 last year.

Some of the buzz about Jackson's vision is premature. His highly touted lakefront plan has very little money behind it and is best understood as a marketing move to try to attract private developers. But progress with the Rock Hall induction, sustainability, and downtown jobs have the mayor feeling confident.

“I know people have talked about, ‘Why doesn’t the mayor use the bully pulpit more?’ ” Those critics, Jackson says slyly, “were critical because they thought I ought to use it for them.

“But I do use it for the schools. I do use it for the lakefront, for the square. I do use it for sustainability. And I guess the bully pulpit of the mayor’s office in those areas wasn’t considered as relevant. But now it seems to be.

“Because I must be a new person, they tell me. I must be a new person.”

You can read my article about Jackson here and in the January-February issue of Inside Business. You can see who else made the Power 100 list here.

Friday, January 6, 2012

FitzGerald #1 on Inside Business Power 100

No one has done more to change Northeast Ohio in the last year than Ed FitzGerald.

That’s why he tops this year's Power 100, the list of the region's most powerful players, in the new issue of Cleveland Magazine's sister publication, Inside Business.

The Cuyahoga County executive has helped to restore confidence in the government he leads by upending a longstanding patronage system. He's also stepped into some of our biggest civic conversations, from regionalism to downtown Cleveland’s future -- expanding our sense of how a political leader can lead.

And he showed a shrewd understanding of power in his high-drama negotiations with Secretary of State Jon Husted over how Ohioans vote by mail.

He's the first politician to be #1 on the Power 100 list since Inside Business began publishing the issue in 2004.

FitzGerald still faces many challenges. His successes on economic development and regional cooperation are modest so far, his housecleaning may be making him enemies in his party, and the political critique of him as an opportunist could resurface since he’s not ruling out a run for governor in 2014.

But he's going to push the limits of local political power again this year. Not only is he about to debut a $100 million county economic development fund, FitzGerald tells Inside Business he'll announce three new policy initiatives at his Feb. 1 State of the County speech.

FitzGerald says he wants human service programs to include strategies for “changing outcomes” — the teach-a-man-to-fish school of social aid. He wants to use the county's casino revenues downtown and on the lakefront. And he wants to advance regionalism by having Cuyahoga County offer to contract with cities to provide some municipal services.

“If you’re talking about having the county emerging over time, possibly in years or decades to come, as the primary provider of [a lot of] municipal service, the county starts to become the city,” FitzGerald told me. “This whole county starts becoming a unified community from a governmental point of view. We’d start becoming one of the larger cities in the U.S., as opposed to the traditional barrier between the city and county."

You can read my article on FitzGerald here and in the January-February issue of Inside Business, published today. You can see who else made the Power 100 list here.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Map of the Fallen Stars: Our handy guide to the Dimora trial

Jury selection starts today in the Jimmy Dimora trial, an ordeal that may last all winter.

Prosecutors plan to introduce more than 1,000 exhibits to try to prove that the former county commissioner committed 34 crimes, from bribery to obstruction of justice. Dimora's lawyers will likely argue that the feds are mistaking friendly gestures for bribes and favors. They may have simplicity on their side: They have one defense exhibit. (Doesn't that make you wonder what it is? What single object possesses the power to create reasonable doubt?)

To help you understand the trial better, Cleveland Magazine has assembled a handy tourist map to the locations made famous by Dimora, star witness Frank Russo, and the federal agents who tapped their phones. From Delmonico's, the home of the 22-ounce cowboy steak, to the shrine where Russo prayed for an alibi, we've assembled a fun and frolicking Hollywood-style tour, a slim yet valuable guide to Jimmy and Frank's Cleveland.

You can read our "Map of the Fallen Stars" here or in the January issue of Cleveland Magazine.

Update, 1/9: I take back what I said about simplicity. Dimora's lawyers have delayed the trial by filing an appeal, arguing that his October indictment on new charges amounts to double jeopardy. Update, 1/11: Appeal rejected. Opening arguments tomorrow.